Preparing for Remote Launch

Wow.

What a week.

It’s been a rollercoaster, in every way you can name, and we’re all in this together.

I’ve been in schools with administrators and teachers as they planned and prepared for launch next Monday. It started with fear and panic — but by the end of the week, there was a sense of resolve and readiness, despite a wide array of unanswered questions and unknowns and anxiety still facing us.

We’ve all now experienced the awkwardness of videoconferences, the urgent need to ‘mute’ our microphones, and the tinny feedback of too many microphones in near proximity.

It’s been great to see educators pulling together and battling this out, both here in NYC and across the globe on Twitter.

In my last post, I shared a few general principles for getting started with remote learning:

  • Maintain Continuity
  • Start With Physical Environment and Resources
  • Start Small. Keep It Focused
  • Balance Synchronous with Asynchronous Learning
  • Remote Learning Doesn’t Require a Screen (At All Times)

As I watched schools preparing and struggled to prepare myself, I had some other things come up that I’ll share in the hope they are useful. Again, these are general principles and ideas — there’s a lot of specific and concrete tools and resources being shared. Twitter has been great for this.

What does a Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education mean?

I’ll admit the first time I read the CR-SE principles adopted by NY state and city, they felt just a bit vague and remote from daily instruction.

Two days ago, while on the train on the way in to a school, I was pondering what CR-SE meant for remote instruction, and at first, I couldn’t see the way in.

I thought of a middle school I was going to, and how they were plugging along setting up Google Classroom to link to CommonLit passages and assigning them to students, which is essentially what they had been doing as “test prep” the last week or two.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was the last thing that kids needed right now. Not to say anything bad against CommonLit, it’s an amazing resource that I’ve been recommending to everyone I know, and we’ll get there. But CR-SE means responding to and sustaining students based on who and where they are. CR-SE instruction — in this pivotal moment — means supporting students in processing what is happening to them and to their world. This is unprecedented. We are all freaking out. We are all overwhelmed.

Students are stuck at home — and “home” can mean something very different for the many students in my district that live in temporary housing. They may be frightened. They may have no idea what’s happening. They need us to help them process and cope with this.

Furthermore, they need our help in becoming informed on a situation in which we don’t know all the answers and our understanding is constantly developing.

This is our opportunity to get kids reading, writing, discussing, and involved in their world. This is what is relevant. This is what is responsive.

In that sense, then, this may be an incredible opportunity to engage kids who were disengaged by school.

We can’t fumble this by throwing random texts and tasks at them. For crying out loud, the state test is cancelled, folks. Stop that nonsense and engage your kids.

What will be each student’s experience?

The other thing that came up for me is that I see some folks steaming ahead into a full blown school day experience on Day 1. I think we need to hit the pause button and pull together around what exactly we may be demanding of each student.

If a student has never interacted much with an online platform, most especially in a situation where they may be completely on their own, they need to be eased into it. And there will be students who you will need to call on the phone and locate and talk them through or their caretaker through how to access the platform and problemsolve the tech issues or wifi issues they encounter.

We can’t start sending assignments from 10 different Google Classrooms. Think about the 1st day of school. You probably had a big meeting in the auditorium, introducing the principal and staff to students. Think in the same way for your kick-off to remote learning.

Think of it also in the way your team may plan homework assignments. If you each ask a student to do an hour of homework, or you all assign a major project at the same time, you’ll know what I mean. A school and each department or grade-team needs to be aware of what each student will be experiencing.

“This is a time for simplicity and being careful not to throw in too many bells and whistles.”

Take heed.

Remote Learning / Social Distancing

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev on Pexels.com

These are the buzzwords of the new paradigm we have been rapidly catapulted into in the last week: remote learning and social distancing. It’s enough to leave one feeling cold.

For a behemoth school system like the NYCDOE to shift its 1.1 million kids and their teachers and administrators into remote learning is quite a sight to behold. A few of our teachers never even checked their email. So while there may be many that already consistently used apps like ClassDojo or gradebooks like Skedula, there are also many that are still struggling with how to log in to multiple online accounts and navigate a SMARTboard.

But welcome to the 21st century, right? I guess it’s about time everyone learns more “advanced literacies.” Well, we’ve been thrown headlong into it.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time compiling lists of the many freely accessible online content already out there–there’s so much it’s overwhelming. Instead, I’m going to reflect on and share a few big picture things in the hope it may be useful. We are all struggling with how to manage teaching and learning in this new paradigm. Please share how you are making meaning of this and what planning and resources you are using!

Maintain Continuity

Moving into remote learning doesn’t have to mean you’re suddenly jumping from one curriculum onto random online sites, of which there are too many to count. Nor does it mean you have to abandon the pedagogical approach your school uses.

Consider how what you have been already been doing can be streamlined and maintained using online capability. For example, if you follow a workshop model approach, you could present a video of yourself doing a mini-lesson, then follow the gradual release model using a guided practice prompt or task, followed by independent practice.

Start With the Physical Environment and Resources

This point was clarified for me as I spoke this morning with a kindergarten teacher who was preparing baggies and folders of materials for each of her students to pick up. She wasn’t wasting her time poking around online just yet. She’ll get there — but her priority was getting the materials in parent and caretaker hands.

This is where we all should be starting. Think first about what kids need with them. Books. Crayons. Paper. Curricular packets. Letter or number manipulatives. Books. Books. Books. Get this into their hands any way you can.

Then think about how we can support families in setting up the environment kids will need to do the work each day. I spoke with a tech savvy teacher at an elementary school this morning who is using Instagram to get parents competitive about sharing the spaces they’ve created for their kids to work in.

Don’t be shy about going there with families. They need the support in understanding what kind of activity and work space kids will need to do the school tasks they need to do, given the physical space that they have on hand. Help them figure out how they can manage the space and time they have available.

Start Small. Keep It Focused

In a recent webinar, Success Academy presented how they are approaching remote learning. In typical SA fashion, they are intensive and accountable at every step of the way, while also laser focused on key principles (UPDATE: Check out Robert Pondiscio’s summary of the webinar). One of main things that stood out to me was their advice to only start with 1 or 2 online platforms, and to keep it simple, while putting the main stress on reading.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of content that is out there online. I think the advice to pick only a few is wise. It will swiftly get overwhelming for students if each of their teachers sends them to a different platform for every assignment. In NYC, we’re mostly sticking with Google Classroom, as it provides a clear and accessible venue for bringing educators and students together.

Educators new to this need to bear in mind what the student experience will be like, and what they can realistically demand given that they have little control over a students’ time, attention, and physical environment. In this new realm, engagement is everything.

The other part that is especially critical here is supporting students and their caretakers in establishing a consistent routine for reading, writing, and study. We’re now in the business of building daily habits, not just in keeping kids in a chair and delivering content.

And of all the daily habits, what is more important to college and career and life outcomes than reading?

Balance Synchronous with Asynchronous Learning

The power of an online platform is that it allows students and educators to access it at any time. The pitfall of online learning is that it requires great self-discipline and motivation.

In order to harness the power of remote learning, while acknowledging the importance of maintaining a sense of engagement and community, it’s important to offer scheduled times when teachers and students will be in the same “virtual” space at the same time, whether face-to-face in a video conference, on a phone conference, or in some kind of text-based communication space.

But there should also be opportunities for students to read, learn, and practice at their own pace, providing an opportunity for going back to models and concepts and refreshing as needed. There’s an idea called “knowledge organizers” that’s been making the edu blogosphere rounds for a while now, especially in the UK, that’s worth exploring in relation to this idea. Couple that knowledge with distributed practice, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for learning.

In terms of teaching and learning, finding some balance between interactive video (where a teacher would provide explicit instruction) and students respond and interact in the moment, and content where students can learn and practice at their own pace, will need to be found.

Do we yet know what this ratio between synchronous and asynchronous learning should look like? I don’t think we do. I suspect that due to the difficulty in pulling in kids who aren’t accustomed to this kind of work requires only a very purposeful and very strategic initial synchronous learning opportunities, which occur at the same time every day, until they get used to what it demands of them.

Remote Learning Doesn’t Require a Screen (At All Times)

It’s easy to fall into the pitfall of remote learning = sitting with a screen.

Instead, think of how you can give students activities and routines for reading, writing, and study without sitting at a screen.

Maybe this will look different across the week, like you begin on Monday with explicit instruction and a video conference, and then practice moves into more offline application, which students bring back for feedback online via a photo or on a videoconference at the end of the week.

These are just a few initial thoughts as I’m making my own meaning out of this crazed move into remote learning. Please share what you are figuring out as we move through this together.

In unity.